Going Fishing in New York City
Urban angling has been around in America as long as there have been cities. It's time to stop treating it like fishing's redheaded stepchild.
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A few weeks ago, Kimberly C. Lee tied on a rubber worm and sent a long cast sailing into the lake in her backyard. A pink sunset glittered on the water, and a heron swept by overhead. Lee reeled in the worm. For a moment, all was quiet.
An elderly man driving an electric golf cart puttered up the path behind her and braked. “Caught anything?” he asked.
“Yeah—a largemouth bass,” Lee said.
“Really?” he said, eyes wide in amazement.
Before she could continue, the man drove away in his cart. “Why so surprised?” Lee muttered to herself. “You’re the one who works here.”
Still, Lee, president of the Manhattan chapter of the Brooklyn Fishing Club, could excuse the intrusion. Her backyard is technically a shared one—New York City’s Central Park—and the cart driver was an oblivious Park employee. She’s used to the wonder in onlookers’ eyes. There’s something shocking about pulling a fish from a body of water when it’s flanked by concrete canyons and hordes of tourists.
Urban angling has been around in America as long as there have been cities, but unlike the broader categories of fly-fishing, bass fishing, and saltwater angling, it has no recognition as a unique pursuit, no guidebook or seminal novel.
Lee wasn’t the only angler at the 11-acre lake at the park’s northern end, known as Harlem Meer. A few yards away, a middle-aged man in sandals cast a fly rod and hauled out bluegill after bluegill. Down the shoreline, a group of four young men in Supreme hats and fresh sneakers flipped jigs into a narrow channel and debated moving on to their next spot. As the air cooled and the park cleared, a ratio shifted: For every person reading or taking a twilight walk around the Meer, there was another one holding a fishing rod, hoping to catch an urban bass.
Urban angling has been around in America as long as there have been cities, but unlike the broader categories of fly-fishing, bass fishing, and saltwater angling, it has no recognition as a unique pursuit, no guidebook or seminal novel. Rather, it’s treated as the redheaded stepchild of fishing, an activity seemingly taken up only by those poor souls crammed into cities, chosen out of necessity. Recently, I bought the book Bright Rivers by the excellent fly-fisherman and writer Nick Lyons because I heard that it focused on fishing in New York. I was disappointed to read that the stories were all about escaping New York to fish elsewhere. Lyons’s bright rivers were all “wild, untamed—like that Montana eagle riding a thermal on extended wings.” Of New York City itself, Lyons wanted one thing: out. “I do not want the qualities of my soul unlocked only by this tense, cold, gray, noisy, grabby place—full of energy and neurosis and art and antiart and getting and spending,” he wrote.
Even the Gray Lady took a shot at anglers with an incredulous headline from 2005: “Fishing in Central Park. For Fish. Really.” In fact, the Big Apple has quietly become a prime model for the richness of urban fishing culture—really.
The bustle of New York City life seems to make people forget that four of its five boroughs are islands, which means there are plenty of shorelines. Shorelines packed with people, yes, but none of that negates the city’s fishiness: its jetty breaks, the way its tides sweep in hordes of baitfish, the shaded banks of its freshwater ponds and lakes.
“To be a really good angler, you have to learn fishing in all different types of situations and for all different types of species,” Steve Wong, a supervising educator with the Prospect Park Alliance, recently told me as he fished a secret spot on Prospect Park Lake in Brooklyn. Wong isn’t part of any particular fishing group, like the Brooklyn Fishing Club, but he’s deeply enmeshed in the fishing culture of the city. He grew up fishing the piers and beaches of Los Angeles. Then he moved to Seoul, South Korea, where he joined a cadre of older Korean men who fish offshore islands from tiny portaboats. Wong next moved to New York, seven years ago. He found, unexpectedly, that it had some of the best fishing yet.
“In NYC, you have access to all those different types of fishing. You have great trout fishing a train ride away” in the streams and rivers of the Catskills, including Roscoe, New York, nicknamed Trout Town, USA. “Great ice fishing. For saltwater, you have the striper fishery of the Hudson Bay, and even more species—fluke, bluefish—out on Long Island. And the city can be a bass fishing destination.” Wong accented this last point by hauling in two decent-sized largemouth bass in three casts.
The data back up that big fish story. “We have some really good waters in terms of fish catch rate,” said Melissa Cohen, manager of New York’s five boroughs with the Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Fisheries. Specifically, 2017 creel surveys, conducted by talking to hundreds of New York City anglers, showed that catch rates for largemouth bass larger than 12 inches in Harlem Meer in Central Park were higher than 88 percent of all other surveyed lakes in the state. In Prospect Park Lake, the catch rates for largemouth bass larger than 15 inches were higher than 96 percent of all other surveyed lakes in the state. That makes them two of the most open-secret honey holes in the United States.
It might seem inevitable that a mainstream fishing club would spring up in a town of 9 million where the fishing is so good. But for a long time, those clubs were mostly exclusive, like the well-heeled, male-dominated New York Anglers Club, or extremely specific, like the Staten Island Tuna Club. Then, in 2013, Victor Lucia, a 25-year-old from New Jersey living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, began researching urban fishing myths and legends in New York City during a grad school class and was surprised to find there had never been a prominent fishing club in the borough. So he started his own. He also had selfish motivations: Lucia wanted somebody to fish with, and urban fishing in New York at the time was a lonely pursuit.
“I thought, how many of these 9 million people who live here are interested in fishing? Probably a lot,” Lucia told me. “But how many know about the fishing options? Not a lot.”
Five years later, the Brooklyn Fishing Club has more than 300 members, chapters in all five boroughs, and an engaged and active membership. Lucia built this membership using social media; the club’s Instagram account has more than 23,000 followers. The club’s merchandise sales are up too. Their most recent sweatshirt features a logo of the Notorious B.I.G., cane in one hand, striped bass in the other.
The club has monthly meetings in each of its borough chapters and provides a variety of fishing opportunities, facilitating charter boats to saltwater fish at reasonable costs and providing members-only trips to fishing destinations in the New York state area. It also provides members with discounts at local fishing businesses. Mostly, the club serves as a mixer for anglers, who by banding together have become much more than the sum of their parts.
“There are a lot of people who take the skills they already have from fishing wherever they came from and apply that to this new environment,” Lucia said.
At a recent meeting, a diverse group wearing Brooklyn Fishing Club gear traded stories and knocked back a few beers. A Guyanese-American named Chris mingled with a white lawyer named Eric and talked about the quest to catch his first striped bass, until they were interrupted by James, who is African-American—and whom Chris happened to work with. Neither knew the other man was in the club, or that he was an angler. Small world, this Big Apple fishing scene.
“Someone will cut my throat for this,” James said. “But at that spot in Coney Island where you’re fishing, there’s a great little fluke hole…”
“People are always taking kids out of the city to teach them how to fish,” Lucia said. “Take them fishing here! Show them how to fish the shipping lanes underneath the Verrazano Bridge.”
The anglers in the Brooklyn Fishing Club, and throughout many parts of New York City, belie stereotypes. Nearly 40 percent of anglers in the United States are above the age of 40; the club is dominated by a younger crowd in their twenties and thirties. Seventy-eight percent of anglers on average throughout the United States are white; the club is made up of close to 50 percent people of color, and a creel study in Harlem Meer found that 50 percent of regular anglers there were African-American, 23 percent were Caucasian, and 20 percent were Latino. If there’s a place where fishing correlates to the growing diversity of America, this is it. (Still underrepresented: women.)
Lucia uses Instagram and Facebook to build his community by constantly posting images taken by club members holding fish. Those photos are candy to other people who fish, join the club, take photos of their own, and share them with Lucia to repost on the club’s Instagram account in a voyeuristic cycle of catches, releases, and likes. Since the late aughts, social media—in particular, YouTube channels like Googan Squad and 1Rod1Reel—have been instrumental in hooking Generation Z on angling and imbuing the sport with the “skater look—branded gear and skinny jeans,” said Steve Wong, the Prospect Park Alliance educator. In a city where you can hop from subway to walking path to lakeside, most New York anglers forego traditional fishing gear for their standard stylish fare, skinny jeans included. “Fishing used to be all about salty old dudes,” Wong said. “It’s changed. It wasn’t cool before. It is now.”
But not everyone loves the New York fishing trend. When I asked an employee in a prominent Manhattan fly shop about the Brooklyn Fishing Club, he made a face and mentioned its members’ tendency to post good fishing holes on Facebook, a phenomenon called “burning” that can cause anglers to swarm a spot. (Lucia and veteran club members warn new members not to burn spots and monitor the club’s social media pages to keep it from happening.) Some relationships in the fishing community are tenuous; Lucia recounted sparring with fishing store owners who had promised deals for members but reneged. “They said, ‘We’ve been around much longer than the club,’” Lucia said. “And I said, ‘Well I can promise you, the club will be around much longer than you if you don’t respect me.’” And there are plenty of young anglers who, like Wong, would rather go it alone than team up.
But New York City’s fishing boom is not alone. “Almost every city I’ve been to has an urban or street fishing movement going on,” said professional angler Mike Iaconelli, whose National Geographic television show, Fish My City, explores fishing in New York City, Miami, New Orleans, and Austin. Viewers discover what Lucia, Wong, and others in New York City already know: Urban fishing’s new grassroots movement is powerful and seems genuinely concerned with the future.
As an offshoot of his efforts with the Brooklyn Fishing Club, Lucia runs a program called the Maritime Youth Alliance to take underserved city kids fishing every summer. “People are always taking kids out of the city to teach them how to fish,” he said. “Take them fishing here! Show them how to fish the shipping lanes underneath the Verrazano Bridge.”
As the sun set back at Harlem Meer, Lee ended up sharing her rods with two young Hispanic kids and showed them how to cast.
“Thanks for letting us fish. It was fun,” the kids said, and then ran off toward their next adventure.
“It’s cheesy, but they’re going to remember that,” Lee said. Then she sent a cast into the Manhattan twilight.